If the ethos of the renovation of the building that once housed B’nai Israel synagogue could be summed up in three words, they might be “reduce, reuse, recycle.”
The former Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, synagogue, built in 1923 and most recently home to the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School, is set to find new life as apartments and, perhaps, a collaborative community arts and performance center.
Boston-based Beacon Communities plans to begin construction in late winter or early spring this year, converting the former school administration wing of the structure into 45 primarily affordable apartments and seven units offered at market rates.
“We are really approaching the entire development of the site with the lens of a regenerative community,” said Beacon Communities Development Director Courtney Koslow. “We’re thinking about how we can align our approach to reuse the building in a way that aligns with nature and addresses social justice and environmental concerns at the same time.”
To meet some of those concerns, the former structure will not be torn down; rather, Beacon will reuse the building and add an additional two stories, thereby limiting the environmental impact of the development.
The project is slated to be both Passive House and Enterprise Communities Certified, meaning that the apartments will be energy efficient in terms of heating and cooling and have a reduced ecological footprint.
The building will be at least net zero if not net positive in energy use, explained Koslow. That means that on average it will produce the same or more energy from renewable energy sources than it imports from external sources.
“We are striving to minimize the use of carbon-heavy materials, such as foam insulation, while at the same time providing affordable housing for families and individuals,” she said.
Beacon’s plans don’t stop with the building itself. Its leaders hope to turn the front lawn into a regenerative farm, repurpose trees that have fallen on the property and reuse some of the windows taken out of the schoolhouse as part of a future greenhouse. The developer even plans to use hempcrete, a bio-composite material that combines the inner woody core of hemp plants with other products, and natural clay plaster to renovate parts of the structure that have suffered water damage.
Beacon has partnered with Desmone Architects and local developers Michael Polite and David Motley who are finalizing financing, which, according to Koslow, includes funding from the URA, the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Authority, low-income tax credits and several other sources.
The developer’s plans do not incorporate the synagogue’s sanctuary/rotunda as part of the new apartments. For that part of the building, Pittsburgh native Sara Stock Mayo and transplant Alyson Bonavoglia — working with both Beacon and the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation — have other plans: a space for the arts.
When Bonavoglia, the former artistic director of the JCC of Greater Baltimore’s Gordon Center for Performing Arts, relocated to Pittsburgh, she said, she began creating a network of people in the Pittsburgh arts community, including Mayo. The two got to talking about creating an arts venue when Mayo learned of the B’nai Israel development project and tentative plans to create a co-working space in the rotunda.
That concept didn’t make much sense to Mayo, who grew up in the synagogue and recalled the building’s rich history and beautiful architecture. Instead, she thought the rotunda might make a perfect location for an arts venue that could also provide space for social justice and interfaith events.
“There are several places around the country that we could use as models for ways to bring together many different things: the arts, different interfaith kinds of events, community building efforts, and some type of social justice and education,” Mayo said.
Bonavoglia, who often noticed the empty synagogue on her daily bike rides, thought it was a perfect site.
“Sara and I got very excited about the possibility of taking this beautiful space and really using it — although not as a synagogue — and really take advantage of the structure of the building, which is meant to hold people sitting, watching and also listening. It has amazing acoustics.”
The Bloomfield Garfield Corporation hired Bonavoglia and Mayo as consultants. They have been having community conversations with arts and cultural organizations, social justice organizations and other nonprofits.
“We’re asking people what challenges they’re facing,” Bonavoglia said. “We’re interested to hear how people are functioning during the pandemic, what they are looking for in a venue, how this kind of venue could support their work moving forward.”
In addition to serving as a space for performing and visual arts, Bonavoglia and Mayo think it could be used for films, lectures and conferences, and could even be rented out for events like weddings and b’nei mitzvah celebrations.
The community might first notice a project though that doesn’t take place in the rotunda. Instead, local artists may have the opportunity to have their work printed on the wraps around the construction fencing at the site, much like that outside the Tree of Life building.
Mayo has other ideas as well.
“One of the first projects we’ve been talking about doing is called ‘Layer the Walls,’” she said. “It would be a theatrical presentation of a group that comes in and tells a story about immigration. It’s a story about a Jewish immigrant and an Irish immigrant.”
The two have been having community conversations to garner wide neighborhood support.
“Alyson and I come from a very strong Jewish place, but we want this to be a collaboration with a lot of different stories being told here,” Mayo said. “We’re working with the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation and starting dialogue with people who have seen a lot of gentrification in their neighborhood and we don’t want this to be another project that just serves part of the community.”
“The goal,” Bonavoglia said, “is to develop something that’s a true community asset.” JN
David Rullo is a staff writer for Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.